Residency models for teacher training

We know that on the ground training with close monitoring and mentorship is more likely to produce better professionals, yet we still see this done in isolated communities. This recent post on bringing the medical residency model to education reminded how badly this is needed and how much our routes to teaching certification still need to change to reflect the realities of education and our economy. I saw a similar model when visiting Ann Arbor, Michigan a few years ago to write a case study  on their efforts to close achievement gaps. In Ann Arbor, the university held classes for pre-service teachers at the school and concentrated the student teachers within a small number of schools. This brought exemplar teachers into the school on a regular basis, shifted the overall approach to one of continuous learning, and impacted the pre-service teachers as well as the veterans. I also this type of approach when in England learning about their education systems as well. We must also recognize that in today’s economy, some folks may enter the teaching field mid-career, and others will move on to different sectors after a few years. Leaders in Michigan are clearly thinking creatively and we all must think out of the box to recruit the best and brightest into education, to provide them the skills they need to lead a classroom, and the supports they need to thrive in the future.

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What blending learning looks like in practice

A new publication on how innovative staffing approaches support the use of blending models was recently released by Public Impact and the Christensen Institute.

A few excerpts that particularly resonated with me:

“… high-quality personalized learning requires much more than equipping students with tablets and software.” … “The greatest impact of blended learning will likely come not from technology alone, but from a redesign of staffing arrangements and instructional models that integrate online learning with excellent teaching. Most schools, including many of those that are seeking to adopt blended and personalized learning, remain stuck in a one-teacher, one-classroom model. In that model, teachers work largely alone, with only sporadic feedback and support. New tasks associated with personalizing learning— such as analyzing student data, differentiating learning activities for student needs, planning real-world learning experiences, giving individualized feedback, and helping students set customized goals—are often added to already overwhelming workloads. In these schools, teachers of all levels of effectiveness essentially play the same role, and they reach about the same number of students.”

The publication then explores how a handful of schools are utilizing new staffing models to adopt blended learning to enable personalization. The varying practices in the schools are the heart of the document and the most useful way to see how the work could be applied in other schools and districts.  The document concludes that to move forward and bring such practices to scale, three conditions must be met. They include: including operations in the annual operating budgets, as opposed to relying on grant funding; availability of excellent teachers; and, availability of great leaders to champion excellence and be willing to think outside of the traditional educational program and staffing boxes.

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The importance of a good principal

There are so many good pieces in this video clip from EdWeek. It’s only a few minutes and I recommend the quick watch. We know how important good strong principals are – they foster collaborative relationships between students, they set high expectations for staff, they care for students (and the students know it), they are open and receptive to parents and families, they understand how to improve instruction and support teachers to do so, and so much more. We also know that traditional principal training programs don’t often teach principals how to do all these things (in addition to the business and operational aspects of running a school that are also often lacking in new principals). Strong mentor programs and embedded professional development opportunities for principals are key to supporting new principals. Providing appropriate administrative and operational support for principals is also a way to ensure that the principals can focus and prioritize the instructional, systemic, and cultural pieces of a school that are so very important.

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When equal isn’t equitable

Budget season is upon us and as a first time board of education member, it has a different meaning this year. As a consultant, I often deal with the aftermath of city or state negotiations. As a taxpayer, I pay the bill, sometimes disagreeing with how effectively some of those dollars are spent. Now, as a consultant, taxpayer, board of education member, and a mother – the discussions and negotiations have a whole new impact.

(Heads up for Norwalkers reading this – I will not discuss politics, the “he said, she said,” or the blame game that is so easy to get into. This piece is about the higher level realities of the term equity and what a budget represents.)

The Background: Like many states, Connecticut is not in a great financial situation – revenue is stalled or is declining, contractual obligations are rising, and costs for everything continue to increase. In Norwalk, which lies along the “Gold Coast,” essentially the far-reaching suburbs of New York City, we receive a disproportionately low share of the state’s education cost sharing formula (long story about the history of ECS and how high real estate prices make it seem that our community has more wealth than it actually does). The city and the state have underfunded the school district for decades.

The school system is finally on a successful trajectory, there is a Strategic Operating Plan (SOP) guiding the work of the district, a Superintendent and Board of Education that believe in and are actively working to fix many of the structural systemic legacy issues, while also moving the district forward to increase college and career readiness for all students. The results of the first few years of SOP implementation have been profound. The district jumped to the top of its district reference group (comparing “like” districts), and the new state accountability metrics, which value student growth, demonstrate major improvements.

Then, budget season comes around. Without going into the nitty gritty of politics (which don’t really matter for the point of this piece, and noting that similar situations occur across the country every year), the bottom line is that the district’s original budget request will not be fully funded. There is a desire to limit tax increases (legitimately so), tax payers want to limit spending while also wanting more and better services, increasing unfunded state and federal mandates cost more each year, and limited state grants add to the complexity of the situation. The result will be the delayed implementation of many of the SOP initiatives, along with some major reductions to current district spending as well – which will include removing staff and cutting programs – when combined, will inevitably impact academic growth and social-emotional learning. Which, eventually impacts property values and the cycle continues…

Is equity equal? In this city, we often compare our per pupil costs to our neighbors – all of whom spend more than us. While I fully support the sentiment of this approach, it is not the entire story. We not only compete with surrounding towns that fund more per student for staff and for families, but we also have a student population that costs more to educate. We have higher rates of English Language Learners, students eligible for free and reduced price meals (approx 50%), and students that require special education services than many of our competing neighbors. This valuable diversity is a huge advantage to our city and the very reason that many families (including mine) move here in the first place, but it does come with a cost. Our assets increase our liabilities. It is our reality.

Nationally, we talk a lot about equity. But, what does equity mean? Equity does not mean equal resources. Equity is more about the outcomes of those resources. When two students start in different places, they may require different resources to achieve the same outcome. Equal funding for Norwalk students does not necessarily equate to equitable educational opportunities.

A Budget’s Significance: I first heard the statement “a budget is a moral document” when I was in graduate school studying public administration. I don’t know who first stated it, as it’s been attributed to many politicians and community activists (including MLK Jr), but that mindset has stuck with me. A budget truly is a moral document. Where we put our resources demonstrates our priorities. Our priorities should reflect our needs (hat tips to good data collection and root cause analysis to determine those needs!) and the values of our community.

Should we throw money around? Absolutely not. I have seen millions of dollars of federal funds used ineffectively in the school improvement world (often due to lack of fidelity of implementation, lack of alignment between programs and needs, lack of monitoring, and the absence of performance contracting). More money does not necessarily fix a problem. Money that is used efficiently and effectively to target improving systems and structures, and provides appropriate supports to students (and staff) does transform the educational opportunities for students.

Takeaways: There are few easy solutions here and my city is not isolated in this struggle. I see similar scenarios play out across the country. That said, this district has made tremendous growth in just a few short years and I hope that we can continue to value and support that growth. Aside from local politics and the cuts that my fellow board members and will have to make over the next few months, my lasting takeaways include: 1) budgets are moral documents that represent our values and priorities, and 2) equal does not always mean equitable.

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School quality by zipcode

I recently read this opinion piece on the74million.org and it really hit home. (It’s a great and well-written piece and I highly recommend the read). A quick summary is that the head of DC Public Schools used his position to manipulate the student lottery and confirm his daughter a spot in a higher performing and better perceived public school (as opposed to the neighborhood school she was supposed to attend). The author explores enrollment practices in DC and how real estate and quality schools are intrinsically tied. At one point, he questions, “Why is this? Why is money — specifically, money spent in the real estate market — the only form of privilege we allow free rein when it comes to accessing high-quality schools?” He responds, “Partly, it’s because the real estate market provides a patina of respectability on privilege. Presumably the wealthy have “earned” their resources through their diligence and hard work and “deserve” the rewards — including automatic access to great schools. Real estate in expensive neighborhoods with guaranteed entry to good schools is just another of the benefits of bootstrapping your way up the American socioeconomic ladder.”

This is not an issue isolated to DC. It happens all over the country —  in the suburbs, in big cities, and even in some more rural areas. Good schools drive up real estate prices and can often lead to housing shortages, and especially affordable housing shortages within the catchement area of a “good” school. Families with means will do whatever it takes to ensure their students attend those “good” schools – including moving across town or to a nearby surrounding town. Now, here lie several issues.

  • A zipcode should not determine the future educational or life opportunities for a child. All schools should provide students with equitable access to academic, extracurricular, and social programs. Equitable does not mean equal, some students require additional supports and some students are ready for enriched opportunities as well. Until school districts are able eliminate low-performing schools, there will always be the good and the bad schools. Attempts at bussing have created their own share of issues (including decreased parent/family engagement, long transit times for kids, and increased transportation costs for districts).
  • And a bigger philosophical question – Beyond ensuring that students receive appropriate academic growth and opportunities, what constitutes a good school? Across the country accountability indexes and report cards are just starting to quantify the value of other academic and social factors (besides the percent of students proficient in an academic area). But, we are still a long way away from being able to really quantify the value of a school – Do the students feel safe? Do the students feel at least one adult cares about them? Is the student population diverse (culturally, ethnically, linguistically, socio-economic, religious)? Is diversity valued? Do the students have fun and are they engaged while learning? Are the students building life skills? Is creativity valued? Do the students have a balanced life?

Often times it takes a few years of improved academic performance and a positive learning environment for the community perceptions of a school to change. Which means it takes a few years for local real estate prices to increase, and thus starting the cycle again.

This article struck me particularly hard as the district I live in is currently fighting for an additional $4M to fund our proposed education budget. At a recent council meeting, taxpayer after taxpayer (mostly parents) identified how much they care about this city, why they chose to live here (diversity was frequently cited), the great programs and learning going on in their schools, but how much they struggle with the annual battle to fight for funding from the state and the city. Many of these outspoken families are the ones who have the means to move just a few miles over to a competing town with “better” schools. If these families leave, what does that mean for the families of students who are unable to move?

A healthy school district would include magnet options for some students and families who aspire for specialized programs or approaches, in addition to strong neighborhood schools. In effect, students have choices and all students have access to a high quality education, regardless of their home address. Until all schools perform at a level deemed satisfactory, the adults with means or with power will continue to game the process for their children. Changing the rules isn’t going to fix the problem. Instead, we have to change the whole system.

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Practicing what I preach

I recently embarked upon a new journey. After a few years writing case studies on effective school board practices (New Haven and Wichita) and developing a training program for local school boards across the country, I took a leap and am now on a local school board. I’m learning a lot, and I also recognize that my work experience from the past decade brings a wealth of information, research, strategies, and contacts to the board and the district. Remembering to practice what I preach is a continuous challenge and one that I hope results in improved educational opportunities for students in my community and for continued professional growth for my company. For some more information about why I ran for the the position and what I hope to bring, see the blog post from ConnCAN linked here or the text of which is copied below…

I’ve worked in the education reform space for over a decade, so ensuring that all of Connecticut’s kids have access to a quality education is important to me.  Quality education is not only a civil right, but it is also how we advance as a country, a society, and within the increasing global world. While I know many people believe that our kids need a great education, it takes on a different meaning once you are a parent. Thinking about what the school system will provide for my toddler-aged son is one of the reasons I decided to run for the Norwalk Board of Education. The changes I strive to make now will influence the education my son and his peers will receive when formal schooling begins in a few years.

Prior to running for and joining the Board of Education, I was part of the design team that helped to launch Board Watch, a grassroots effort involving community volunteers who are trained to observe and hold their local school boards accountable via evaluations of meeting conduct. I believe that bringing transparency and accountability to public officials is always important. When I first moved to Norwalk, I was concerned about the rhetoric and the perception of the school board. While I didn’t have children at the time, it didn’t make me any less concerned about the public education system and the quality of life for our kids. If we want to see change, we can’t wait for others to make it happen for us. It’s easy to sit back and critique, but the hard work comes when we choose to roll up our sleeves, listen to other’s perspectives, assess the need, create a plan, implement the work, and monitor the outcomes.  

With a busy education consulting company and an even busier toddler, I didn’t plan on running for the Board of Education, but the opening occurred and the situation presented itself. I hope that I can use this opportunity to maximize my impact in public education during the remaining two years of this term.  I look forward to working with my fellow board members to assess the district’s needs, ask tough questions, and support changes that will directly benefit students. Too often we see adults’ personal feelings become involved and decisions are made not in the best interest of our kids.

With the state’s current economic situation, it’s clear Connecticut is at a crossroads. We’re going to need a strong workforce that is prepared to take the jobs that will help our economy flourish. I hope to use this position as a board member to uplift our kids and to help provide them with the education that will lead to their success.

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New release: Recommendations for differentiating supports for schools identified for TSI

This brief includes recommendations for state level supports and services for schools identified for Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI). The brief is co-sponsored by the Council on Chief State School Officers and the Center on School Turnaround (at WestEd) and was originally drafted and released as a draft for an ESSA Implementation conference in September. Additional examples were added after the conference.

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